One beautiful day while walking my dog, Halley, I noticed a swastika carved into a sidewalk in a new residential development situated along a busy road. I abruptly stopped. A tight knot formed in my stomach. I knew I had to do something. First, I had to take photos; I took three. Armed with evidence, I took Halley home and began thinking about my next move to deal with this scary situation. I never felt more vulnerable as a Jew than I did then, seeing a swastika in my own neighborhood.
I decided to drive to the police station. Feeling uneasy, I began questioning what kind of neighborhood I lived in. Once at the police station, I asked to speak with an officer. I showed him the pictures and he wrote a report. Then he told me to delete the pictures as soon as I could. I asked him what was going to be done. He said he would look into it. I told him that the swastika was evidence of hate activity in our community. I told him also that I was going to my local township zoning office to file a complaint. I wanted that slab of sidewalk removed!
At the township zoning office, I spoke with a kind woman, who looked at the pictures on my phone. I explained exactly where the slab with the swastika was. The kind woman said thank you, but there was not much she could do. At that point I said, “Oh, but there is something you can do and that is to remove the slab.” I asked her if she knew what the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was, how it fights all forms of bigotry. I then told her that I would report this to the ADL if, indeed, the slab was not removed in a timely fashion; that our community cannot tolerate the hate that swastikas represent. She added a bit more information to the report, smiled and thanked me again.
Three days later, as I drove by that sidewalk, I noticed that the swastika was now covered by a mountain of cement. Within a week, the slab had been completely flattened and restructured; there was no longer evidence that a swastika had been there.
I tell this story when I teach the lessons of the Holocaust to students in religious schools or community organizations. Students always ask what they can do in their own community if confronted by antisemitism and other forms of hate. They know from learning about the Holocaust what can happen if hate goes unchecked. I tell them that education is the key to empowerment, that it is the primary tool they need to have to fight back.
I tell them, “Go to an adult, go to the police, trust your instincts, you know right from wrong. Stand up and be an ‘upstander.’” My students know the power of voice. We study newspaper editorials to learn this. My students know the power of writing as a tool to make their voices heard!
I share a story about Chris, who was one of the students I taught in a NJ Public school. Chris came running into the classroom, his face flushed.“Mrs. Mann,” he said, completely out of breath, “I just came from the library and saw a swastika etched into one of the tables.” Now standing in front of the entire class, Chris added, “I reported it to the librarian,” the color of his face returning to normal. I told Chris he did the right thing. He trusted his instinct that he had seen something very wrong and acted on it.
At that point, I called the librarian. She confirmed what had happened and told me a report had been filed. Two days later, the tables were removed from the school. “Hate has no place here!” became our school’s new motto.
Hadassah, the national organization in which I have been active for many years, has a long and venerable history of fighting intolerance and antisemitism. In 2020, for example, Hadassah co-sponsored the Never Again Education Act, which expanded Holocaust educational programming in the US. Through Hadassah, I have had many opportunities to educate and advocate for a more tolerant society.
As Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold famously said, “Make my eyes look toward the future.” Learning about the Holocaust gives children the tools they need to make the future a better, safer place. I hope those I teach the lessons of the Holocaust will grow into advocates, who make their voices heard. This is the power of education.